Shine like a disco ball in GaYbor

A night out with GaYbor royalty MarkandCarrie.

click to enlarge IT'S NOT WATER: Mark Bias explains his trademark teacup at Streetcar Charlie's while Carrie West looks on. - Larry Biddle
Larry Biddle
IT'S NOT WATER: Mark Bias explains his trademark teacup at Streetcar Charlie's while Carrie West looks on.

If you've attended any event remotely connected to GaYbor, you've seen them: the man with the long golden locks and sequined cowboy hat and his ebullient, teacup-carrying consort, the unofficial Kings and Queens of GaYbor: Mark Bias and Carrie West. Since co-founding the GaYbor Coalition in 2007, MarkandCarrie (say their name as one word, everyone else does) have built a network of gay and gay-friendly businesses that have played a big role in the latest Ybor renaissance.

But one question has remained, for me at least: These guys are in their 50s, they run their own successful shop (MC Filmfest), they're forever sending out e-newsletters and leading meetings and going to events. So how do they do all that and still hit the clubs with such apparent fervor?

And what's in that teacup, anyway?

I decided to risk liver and sleep and see for myself. As it happened, I coincidentally chose to follow them around on the same evening as Bradley Nelson, who won a Night Out with Mark and Carrie in CL's Holiday Auction. Brad, a former bartender, is a friend of the couple, so he'd already had some first-hand experience with the circuit. But as another member of our party points out, it's not easy to keep up: "I've never been able to make it to more than two bars," says Mike Olds. "Then I call it a night."

Tonight, along with several friends, we're about to see if we can go the distance.

6:30 p.m.: Streetcar Charlie's

The party's already started when my partner Larry and I arrive. MarkandCarrie and company are chowing down on appetizers, and Carrie invites us to dive in, too. He's wearing a silvery gold lame jacket and his trademark white hat; Mark's in a sparkly purple tuxedo, ruffled white shirt and a rakish black chapeau, with English Rose china teacup in his hand per usual. It's time to get the most pressing question out of the way.

"Ice water, officer, I'll swear to that," he responds to my query. I'm actually prepared to believe him (I've never actually seen him drunk on one of his nights out, just cheery). Then I do a taste test: there's ice in there, all right, but it's floating in straight vodka. My admiration soars.

MarkandCarrie have been part of the Tampa Bay gay community since moving here from Minneapolis in 1980 after deciding they wanted to go back to school. They flipped a coin — California or Florida — and wound up going to USF, Carrie in mass communications, Mark in architecture. They turned their video-collecting hobby into a home mail-order business in 1989 just as queer cinema was about to break, then opened a store at the old Suncoast Resort before moving to their present location in 2007 opposite Charlie's at 15th St. and 8th Avenue.

Mark has always been a flamboyant dresser, though he doesn't do his trademark stiltwalking anymore: "When I turned 50, Carrie said, 'Cut that shit out.'" (He's now 55; Carrie is 58.) Carrie's no slouch in the haberdashery department either: "We have one whole bedroom that's strictly a closet," he tells me. "Racks and racks of costumes." (The collection includes three identical sequined cowboy hats — he's wearing "the best one" tonight.) They're blithely indifferent to catcalls and stares, and if their outfits bother anyone of the straighter persuasion, Mark almost always disarms doubters with his forthright charm. "That's GaYbor hospitality," says Mark. "You say hi to anybody."

They're full of juicy Ybor lore; there's the legend about the TV star getting gangbanged on a now-defunct bar's pool table, and the rumors about a notoriously arson-prone club owner. But we can't stay and gossip. We've got (ulp) 10 more stops to make. The evening's young.

7 p.m.: Teatro on Seventh

The foyer in the gorgeously restored second-floor restaurant is a sea of grey suits and fuchshia gowns — we've apparently stumbled into a wedding party. Mark, true to form, compliments the little flower girl on her white dress — "You're beautiful tonight!" — but our table's not ready yet. We move on.

7:10 p.m.: Tribeca Color Salon

It's a Saturday night, so there are only a few haircuts in progress at this gleaming Centro Ybor salon. But that allows more time for apprentice Ashley Stolle and manager Tanya Fujiki-Hastings to give a tour of the surprisingly spacious quarters and the adjacent (very pink) Becky Beauty Shop. And what choice do they have once the force of nature that is Mark blows in? I think he could have wangled himself a free manicure while he was at it.

7:20 p.m.: Gameworks

In a place that's all about sensory overload, our entourage hardly bears notice. ("Nice jacket," says one gamer admiringly.)

And Carrie is clearly no novice when it comes to the Indy Cars game, in which the driver steers a faux racecar while watching his progress on a screen. Or maybe it's not so much that Carrie is good — though the cowboy hat definitely gives him a Nascar-meets-Liberace flair. It's that I totally suck. (What — there was a gas pedal? Now you tell me!)

7:45 p.m.: Wear Me Out!

We duck into the new domain of Sharon Rose, who has moved her boutique from the casitas at Centennial Park to Centro and changed the name from the vaguely ethereal Mermaid's Slipper to the more in-your-face Wear Me Out! The wearable art in her shop might not seem the perfect fit in Centro, but business, says Sharon, is great.

Take the taffeta boas — the perfect what-the-hell-I'm-on-vacation impulse buy. And you don't even need to be on vacation: my partner, apparently inspired by the sartorial glories of our hosts, decides an Avatar-blue boa would be the perfect accessory for our Oscar party. It's the Gaybor Effect: Sharon says most of these boas have been sold to men.

8 p.m.: Teatro

Our table's not quite ready, so we hang by the bar for photos (there are always photos in a MarkandCarrie excursion) with one of Teatro's co-owners, retired Air Force Major General David Scott and his wife Jill. They've just returned from Bike Week in Daytona Beach so the general is still wearing his leathers. He looks, dare we say it, pretty hot (and so does Jill). Chaps! Boas! Sequins! It's like a '70s flashback.

The wedding reception's still going strong, and as we sit down for dinner we discover there's also a high school reunion in progress: the Hillsborough High Class of '53. It's a party in here! (Before long, a frisky white-haired gentleman named Arlen Mohler is up and dancing with the wedding guests, which is just the normal course of things, his wife Sandy tells me: "He's hard to keep down when there's music going.") Chef/owner Bill Haines and his wife Leigh, the charming general manager, come by for more, you guessed it, photos. And in the middle of it all, I listen to the story of how Mark and Carrie met. Carrie was working for a boat company at the time, so for each of their first three dates he took Mark out on a different boat, neglecting to tell him they were borrowed. Mark was suitably impressed by this show of waterborne wealth until he learned the true provenance of Carrie's fleet. The couple chuckles at this now. They still make each other laugh.

9:30 p.m.: Leaving Teatro

On the way out Mark stops to sign the bridal register. He imagines the reaction when the bride and groom look over the list: "'Is "Teacup" on your side of the family?'"

10 p.m.: Hamburger Mary's

On our way into this new outpost of a fun-loving national chain, we find a group of young ladies getting makeup tips from one of Mary's drag performers, Robyn Demornay ("a former Miss GaYbor"). Inside, between bouts of 'smores and fried Twinkies (like I said, fun-loving), I'm introduced to the voluptuous and very blonde Miss Joey Brooks, a former Baptist church organist who's now "The First Lady of Ybor City." ("I'm the First Lady of GaYbor!" Mark chimes in.) "I gave most of the girls their start," Joey tells me, noting that there's been a drag revival in Tampa since the days she had to sneak into the legendary drag club El Goya at age 16.

Carrie introduces me to Yolanda "Yoli" Borrero, who's the center of attention at two big tables by the stage. She's the kitchen manager at Mary's, celebrating "one year of being cancer-free." She looks around at her friends, many of them fellow crew members at the restaurant: "They're my rehab," she says.

11:30 p.m.: o1o Organic

We're late, but Nicholas Volpe, the affable co-owner of this PR firm/art gallery, opens up for our crew. We ogle the art, including a singular vision of a crushed can by Tampa artist Noah Deledda — winner of the grand prize in Red Bull's "Art of Can" competition. On our way to our next destination, Carrie gets the best compliment of the night from a passerby: "You're shining like a disco ball, Lady Gaga!"

Midnight and beyond: The Honey Pot/ G Bar/The Eagle

OK, by this point it was all beginning to blur a bit: Girls' night at Honey Pot, hot women dancing on pedestals and flirting with the ladies on the floor; boys' night at G Bar, hot men dancing on the bar and flirting with the guys on the floor (Carrie knows all the dancers, he tells me, because he sells them their underwear and their cock rings); a visit to the Leathermen's Den at the Eagle, where the genial shopkeeper introduces us to his "pup," a young man on all fours who stays faithfully by his master's side.

Our group parts, appropriately enough, outside MC Filmfest. I don't quite remember whether everyone who began the evening was still with us, but I decide there are three important rules to follow if one wants to whirl through life like MarkandCarrie:

1. Wear a sequined cowboy hat and everyone will want to try it on.

2. Bring a camera everywhere you go and the boys (and girls) will love you.

3. Smile and say hello to everybody and don't give a damn what anyone thinks.

Do these things and you, too, will have a very good night out.

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